It would be impossible to write genuinely this week without first mentioning Sean. So I won't even try.
Sean Costello, a close family friend of ours and an unparalleled blues guitarist, died suddenly last week, to the dismay of all of us who knew him, and many who did not. This amazing young man, who I have known since he was 10 years old picking out complex guitar riffs with my brother in our basement, was just shy of his 29th birthday when he died. As many at his funeral and in the news articles have pointed out, he seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, both musically and personally. I know that his death leaves many -- not just those of us who knew him -- shaking our heads in sadness for the loss of such a wonderful spirit, and all that would've been created through him.
With his loss, we are also appreciating all that he did create: the tortured strains of his prodigious blues guitar seem to sound sadder and sweeter today than they ever have. If you knew Sean or loved his music, then please know that I'm sharing deeply today in your loss and grief. If you've never had the pleasure, do yourself a favor and visit his website or his myspace page, because Sean's music says it better than my words ever could.
It seems that death -- and sudden or unjust death in particular -- always seems to make us stop and re-evaluate where we are in our own lives. Many of us become reconnected with our spirituality and take a second look at our priorities. I've also read that whenever you lose someone important to you, you grieve not just that person's death, but every loss you've experienced before that as well. So in that sense, grief can be thought of as cumulative. Each loss has a more powerful impact on us because of all the losses before it.
For the average person reading this blog, that means increasing levels of sorrow that build slowly over a lifetime (hopefully one that is also filled with tremendous amounts of joy). For people who experience overwhelming losses -- the death of a child, the loss of an entire family, the horrors of genocide -- I can only imagine what a tremendous burden the grief is to bear.
Like many people, my own experiences with death have been wide-ranging -- from losses of close family members and friends to those with whom I shared a less intimate connection. Each experience has impacted me differently, bringing forth a different combination of shock, sadness, occasional relief, and on some level, joy.
I believe that in every death, there is an opportunity to find a new sense of joy and fulfillment in our lives. (I suspect this is true for all losses: whether it's a loved one, relationship, job, or even an idea we once held about ourselves or the world.)
When someone is taken from us, or chooses to walk away, we lose the closeness and intimacy we once had with them. But we also gain a perspective - painful though it is - on just how much that person impacted our lives. We have an opportunity then to honor them by relishing what was good in them, telling stories, singing, laughing, remembering, and learning as much as we can from the experience.
And if grief is cumulative, why not joy? Why shouldn't every moment we live be buoyed up and enhanced by the joy from our past, as much as it is grounded and made real by our losses?
My Rabbi, a wise and compassionate woman, once told me that we keep people alive by telling stories about them - passing on their legacy to future generations. She wanted me to know that even though my future children will never get to know my mother in person (she died when I was 25), they will know her through the stories I tell about her, the pictures I show them, and the way I honor and attempt to embody her spirit in myself.
It occurs to me that in many ways, I am made up of the people I have known and loved. Those who are still a part of my life continue to influence and enrich me every day. At times like this, I notice and appreciate them more. I try to hold them a little dearer. But the mark left on my soul by those who have moved on is more poignant: carved into relief by the sharpness of finality. I carry it all with me, I carry them with me, in everything I do.
From my maternal grandfather I carry the solace of long afternoon walks, a love of old things, the ability to laugh at myself, and a fanatical loyalty to the Atlanta Braves. His wife, my grandmother, taught me that personal strength can flourish well below the surface, and that a good laugh and a positive attitude can make almost any situation bearable. From my paternal grandfather I got a sense of history, strong work ethic, and the knowledge that a person doesn't need to talk much to command respect. And my paternal grandmother taught me to fish, to love the outdoors, and that a good story is worth far more than money -- even if you occasionally have to exaggerate the details for effect.
From my dear friend Laura, courage: to embrace life fully every single day, despite all its imperfections and hardships, to sing karaoke even when you're terrible at it, and to do the right thing no matter what anyone might say or think about you. And from my mother, I bring a thousand things. Among them, a love of music (even though, sadly, I didn't inherit her talent for it), a warm and easy laughter, and a generous spirit that reminds me no matter how bad my life or situation might seem, there is always a neighbor or friend who needs my help.
And as for Sean, even though it had been many years since we'd been in frequent contact, I will take with me his broad, shy smile (always my favorite among the facial expressions for which he was so well known), his music, and the way he proved every day that with passion and courage, any of us can defy, exceed, and redefine the expectations that seem to govern our lives. Wherever Sean is, wherever all those congregate who have been lost to this world, I believe with my whole heart that the message is the same for him as it is all of us....